Wealthy holidaymakers are fuelling a rebound in private jet travel demand this summer as coronavirus restrictions are lifted, operators and analysts said.
Private jet companies registered a surge in demand in June and July as well-heeled travellers opted to avoid crowds and find alternatives to commercial flights, which are being grounded because of the pandemic, executives said.
Paramount Business Jets, a US operator, said its domestic and international bookings doubled from last year, driven by inquiries from new passengers.
"July and August are shaping up to be stellar months. We are expecting demand for private aviation to be steady and continue to rise as restrictions ease," the company's chief executive Richard Zaher told The National.
PrivateFly, a private jet charter booking service, said its bookings in Europe had recovered to about 80 per cent of last year's levels while US bookings were back to pre-pandemic levels.
Adam Twidell, chief executive of PrivateFly, said new clients, including those who had flown on private jets, accounted for 60 per cent of flight bookings.
New customers, particularly older passengers and those with existing health conditions, are opting for private travel to avoid contracting Covid-19 on commercial flights, he said.
The recovery is outpacing that of commercial airlines, which are striving to win back passenger confidence.
Demand for private flights registered a year-on-year drop of 70 per cent in April but was only 28 per cent below last year's levels by June, according to data research company WingX.
The surge continued through the first three weeks of July as global private travel came within 15 per cent of pre-coronavirus levels after European countries began to lift travel restrictions, it said.
However, demand for commercial air travel fell by 91 per cent in May from a year ago, a mild improvement compared to the 94 per cent decline recorded in April, according to the International Air Transport Association.
June passenger numbers fell by 86.5 per cent year on year, registering only a slight improvement from the 91 per cent contraction in May, according to Iata.
In the US, private jet traffic declined by about 20 per cent to 8,046 flights per day in the year through to July 19, according to flight-tracking and data platform FlightAware, while US commercial airline traffic was down 48 per cent in the same period.
JetSet Group, a US private jet and aircraft broker, said its bookings grew by 40 per cent this year from 2019 levels.
“It’s mostly people with [several] homes and vacationers ... that have been flying back and forth,” Steven Orfali, president and founder of JetSet, said.
To capitalise on the rebound in the leisure sector, Dubai aviation company Jetex signed partnerships with smaller luxury resorts to accommodate large families or groups or friends travelling together by private jet, said founder and chief executive Adel Mardini.
Taking steps to “ensure safety and privacy”, Jetex created a jet-to-yacht programme that whisks passengers from planes to private vessels sailing the Mediterranean.
It also introduced aircraft ionisation technology, a chemical-free method to disinfect cabins, he said.
Mr Mardini said a flight from Dubai to Paris, Nice or Geneva – popular destinations among Gulf travellers – costs between Dh125,000 and Dh160,000 for a private jet that seats up to 12 passengers. A flight to the Maldives costs between Dh90,000 and Dh110,000, depending on the aircraft type and date.
“With fuel prices being low, flying private has become accessible to more travellers than ever before,” Mr Mardini said.
Private jet company executives said they were optimistic about business in the coming months as more countries reopen their borders and restart their economies and as more first or business-class passengers opt for private travel.
Ameerh Naran, chief executive of Vimana Private Jets, said pent-up demand had left leisure travellers desperate for a much-needed holiday or family visit while business travellers were keen on flying out to manage their assets or support their global offices amid a tough economic climate.
“Vimana Private Jets is handling a huge increase in demand right up until the end of September. Requests are high in the US for domestic travel and globally across countries where borders have opened,” Mr Naran said.
“As more countries ease lockdowns, growth will continue, and I expect to see [a sharp increase] in demand from our Middle East and Asia-based clients.”
However, many private jet operators said corporate travel traffic remained weak, compared to before the pandemic, due to global conferences being cancelled, business meetings being held virtually, many offices staying closed or partially reopening and companies slashing their budgets.
“Business flights are drastically down from the start of Covid[-19], I would say by about 70 per cent,” Mr Orfali said. He acknowledged the increase in corporate travel in June.
Operators said they expect business travel to make a strong return in the fall, driven by company executives eager to reduce their exposure to the virus on commercial flights.
“Much business travel should resume starting September and October, so we are looking for a big revival there,” Mr Orfali said.
Industry executives issued a warning that the green shoots of recovery in private travel this summer could wilt by the fall if there is a wider second wave of infections worldwide. In such a scenario, governments would again shut borders and bring back quarantines.
The absence of a Covid-19 vaccine and a slow pick-up in business travel could also dampen the recovery in private jet travel, they said.
"There remains a big question mark for the rest of the year, with the levels of business travel still unknown," Mr Twidell said.